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The torturous delight of having a pandemic crush

An unattainable crush is a perfect distraction for these chaotic times.

A man and a woman flirt sitting 6 feet apart on a park bench.
During the coronavirus pandemic, a person can safely cultivate a crush in their head, home, or 6 feet away from the object of their affection.
Getty Images

During the lonely month of April, the most thrilling news I could anticipate came in the form of weekly updates on my friend Kenny’s pandemic crush. An intense and somewhat unrealistic infatuation had managed to rear its head in Kenny’s life, right when the virus made it dangerous to be in close contact with others. It was a second-degree-removed crush on my end, but I still felt invested; a crush is a torturous delight, even in normal times, and even when it’s happening to someone else.

Kenny was introduced to his crush, whom we’ll call Arthur, virtually on a Discord group chat for gay League of Legend gamers. “I had nothing to lose,” Kenny later recounted to me. He had just ended a three-year relationship, and quarantine heightened his sense of loneliness.

In reality, the relationship “really wasn’t going anywhere,” he admitted, despite the constant messaging and back-and-forth flirting.

Arthur, who lived about 40 minutes away, was working as a nurse and interacting with at-risk patients, and their online courtship hadn’t progressed enough to risk an in-person meet-up. Over time, the mutual feeling gradually faded, and Kenny found himself preoccupied with yet another crush from the same Discord group.

2020 has been a big year for yearning — for crowded bars, cozy family gatherings, tight hugs, and mask-less interactions. That has translated into a deep, unattainable longing for all sorts of people, experiences, and destinations. Developing a pandemic crush, therefore, is a sort of emotional coping mechanism, even if romance isn’t necessarily the goal.

It’s a silly yet socially non-consequential obsession a person can safely cultivate in the confines of their head and home. Plus, crushes are indiscriminate — they’re definitely not just for young, single people. Older adults and those in committed relationships (monogamous or polyamorous) can harbor these feelings as well. “Crushes have more to do with fantasy than with reality,” argued psychologist Carl Pickhardt. “They tell much more about the admirer than the admired. It’s because they usually prove unrealistic that in a relatively short time they soon wear off.”

In pandemic times, the stakes are different when it comes to pursuing a love interest. For some, having a crush is a noncommittal hobby, in which brief feelings of attraction are directed toward a mutual friend, a cute neighbor, or a friendly grocery store cashier with good vibes. Meanwhile, others are wading into romantic entanglements (often long-distance) that have become much more serious, akin to that of a long-distance relationship, while the uncertain nature of the pandemic hangs in the background.

Particularly for the many single young people who’ve found themselves living alone or with their parents, and socializing at arm’s length with a handful of familiar acquaintances, it’s a pleasant, time-worthy distraction. The type of romantic yearning that comes with a crush is a form of escapism, an act that’s arguably as productive as (if not more so than) doomscrolling through Twitter.

“Quarantine basically feels like I’m in high school again doing homework at my family’s dinner table,” said Dorian, a 25-year-old graduate student in Minnesota, who began crushing on his high school ex-girlfriend in May. After emotionally extracting himself from this one-sided affair, Dorian developed another crush, this time on Zoom while he was helping a coworker prepare for a presentation.

“Given that all my social and physical contact has become so infrequent and short-lived, there’s almost extra emotional salience that normal interactions are given,” he explained to me. “And that can easily be confused by my lizard brain as being romantic, instead of a desire to spend time with literally anyone.”

Given the lack of anticipatory excitement in our lives, crushing on someone — whether that’s an old friend or a social media mutual — is seductive and oddly satisfying. So why stop?

Crushes are a result of one’s brain chemicals acting up, releasing dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and oxytocin (the love hormone) to create a sense of euphoria and fuzzy excitement. One clinical psychologist told Bustle that by virtue of having a crush on someone, “our brain has a stimulus that is different from our daily experience, and that novelty keeps us engaged.”

Novelty feels sacred nowadays, even if the nature of a crush is fickle. Love in the time of coronavirus — as described to me by the many young people I spoke with — is “pure” yet “emotionally devastating,” “thrilling” but also “exhausting.”

“It’s been a very lovely and indulgent way to exercise my hopeful, imaginative, and romantic muscles,” said Sarah Kissel, a 26-year-old master’s student in Massachusetts, of her pandemic crush.

The two connected in September through an Instagram matchmaking setup for queer women run by the account @dykeblanchett. Within minutes of having her Instagram handle shared on the account’s Stories, Kissel received a deluge of messages from women across the world, but her strongest connection was with, as she described to me, “the most unattainable babe of all time” named Rachel, who is a Rome-based filmmaker and screenwriter.

Their flirtations, which started on Instagram messages, have been “languid and longing,” according to Kissel, and moved immediately past small talk into questions like, “Do you believe in fate?” and “What was your most painful heartbreak?” They’ve set up Zoom dates for Kissel to brush up on her Spanish and Italian (Rachel speaks both fluently), but in light of the international travel restrictions, her budding feelings are “a real problem,” Kissel joked. “Will I go to Rome as soon as it’s safe to meet her? Absolutely.”

But not all crushes are made equal. There are the long-haulers, like Kissel, who are developing intense emotional attachments with their crushes (who are likely reciprocating this interest). Then there are the more casual crushes, like Kenny’s, usually directed toward mutuals on social media or vaguely familiar acquaintances.

The parameters of a crush doesn’t always fall neatly within these two categories; there are also quarantine Hinge boyfriends, Trader Joe’s employee crushes, and thirst trap reply guys. “I’ve had quite a few crushes that would just randomly slide into my DMs and give me some attention after I post a thirst trap,” said Isshani Desai, a 25-year-old creative strategist in Brooklyn. “These conversations are not getting any deeper, which is why it feels unattainable for me.”

Over the past six months, Desai has developed surprising, brief crushes on people who randomly flirt with her online. None have expressed interest in texting her more consistently, but that noncommittal factor keeps Desai grounded. “People want to meet up right away, and they’re not willing to make conversation to really get to know you,” she said. “I don’t know if they’re as great as their social media or what I build them out to be, but in quarantine, the only thing you have is your mind and your own fantasies.”

There is, though, the growing thrill of scoping out in-person crushes at local bars, parks, and grocery stores — something Desai never really used to do before the pandemic. Most people are masked up, which makes the search more exciting. “Nowadays when I go to Trader Joe’s to get groceries, I’d dress up and wear something really nice,” she said. “Because seriously, like, where else am I going to meet the love of my life?”

These crush scenarios all maintain an element of ambiguity, since the majority of them are sustained virtually. Attraction toward one’s interest could be “a potent mix of idealization and infatuation,” as Pickhardt, the psychologist, described. “It doesn’t require knowing another person well at all.”

It’s much easier to project emotions or character traits on another person when they are physically distant, which is a concern Andrea, a 27-year-old advertising strategist in New York City, has when it comes to her pandemic crush Jacob, who is based in London.

“I feel like I know him through the glass on my phone, through an app,” she told me. “I have projected things on people before, but I don’t think that’s an entirely fair assessment of our relationship since we talk so much.”

Jacob was only supposed to be a one-night stand for Andrea when she was vacationing in Los Angeles in January. They sporadically kept in touch over the next couple weeks when he flew to New York City and she to London for work, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that they began texting every day. Yet Andrea is uncertain whether Jacob is equally invested in her or even knows who she is as a person.

Their relationship is now in a weird “no-man’s land territory,” where there’s no timeline for defining the relationship or demanding exclusivity. “I’m not going to stop this person from dating, and I shouldn’t stop myself either,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t be crushing. I have the most disgusting crush on this man. It’s horrific. And I don’t know what to do because he’s in London.”

Like Kissel’s situation with her pandemic crush, international travel isn’t currently an option for Andrea. She is curious about the blurry nature of their virtual relationship, but the reality of her crush — and her burgeoning feelings for him — is something she’s only considered in the abstract.

“I’ve kept him to myself selfishly in a way,” she told me. “I want to preserve these feelings that I have, this relationship that feels so unmarred by the politics of friendship or day-to-day life. In my head, it’s just a pure connection between us.”

This sense of emotional purity and deep connection is, perhaps, more salient for most people in quarantine than ever before. For most of this year, we’ve lived in closed-off clusters, interacting primarily with those we already know and trust. Developing a crush is a naive act of hope. While it is an act of emotional projection, it’s also one of self-redemption — allowing yourself to pine after an unattainable dream, in spite of all the terrible, mind-boggling events that have occurred so far.

According to my own pandemic crush, “there’s something obviously a bit fantastical and romantic” about this moment and the feelings people are developing. “It came about largely because we’re in these glitch-in-the-matrix circumstances,” he texted me, “but because the emotions involved are legitimate, it also feels just as committed as a full-fledged relationship.”

What is the risk, then, of putting your feelings on the line for someone in another country or someone you might never meet, when all the systems we depend on are in crisis? Crushes come and go, but the feelings that accompany them, however fleeting, are legitimate and a reflection of what we desire. A pandemic crush is simply a chaotic byproduct of these chaotic times.

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